Chinese tourist arrivals break records this February

Chinese tourists have set a record for tourist arrivals in the Maldives this February, reports Miadhu.

The Asia-Pacific region recorded 21,362 tourist arrivals, marking a 122.5 percent rise in arrivals from the region.

During February, 13,345 Chinese tourists arrived in the Maldives, compared to 12,003 Italians, 10,422 British nationals and 6,602 Germans.

This is the first time that Europeans have not been the largest market for tourism in the Maldives.

Tourism experts believe the rise was due to the Chinese New Year, but some critics argue that entertainment and shopping are key areas for Chinese tourists and need to be improved to sustain the numbers of Chinese visiting the Maldives.

Two Chinese tourists recently died during their stay in the Maldives. The first drowned while snorkelling in February. The second man was reported as being robbed and killed by Chinese newspaper Shanghai Daily, but Maldives Police Service reported that the man drowned.


President Nasheed meets with financial sector experts in Germany

President Mohamed Nasheed met with officials from the development banking sector in Germany yesterday.

President Nasheed discussed investment and assistance for the Maldives at a meeting with representatives from KfW Entwicklungsbank (German Development Bank), German Investment and Development Company (DEG), and Senior Expert Services (SES).

They focused on the areas of investment in renewable energy, tourism and the fisheries industry.

The president sought assistance from the SES in restructuring state-owned enterprises.


Staff at Centara Grand strike over low service charge payments

Management at the Centara Grand Island Resort in North Ari Atoll have increased the service charge allocated to staff after workers held a strike yesterday.

A employee told Minivan News that staff from the housekeeping department, front office and food and beverage department participated in the strike from 10:00am yesterday morning to 4:30pm in the afternoon.

He said the staff held the strike because they were not receiving the service charges agreed to them by management, adding that the management had persisted in giving them the lower amount “claiming that the room revenue was very low.”

“The general manager and someone from labor ministry came and spoke to us and said the service charge would be increased,” he said.

”The general manager gave us three documents guaranteeing they would add $US300 to our service charge from this month onwards.”

He said staff would renew the strike if the management failed to follow the conditions in the document.

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports, Ahmed Shinan, said while he was unable to comment on the specifics of the incident, the ministry had received information about the case and a representative from the ministry had visited the island.

The management of Centara Grand Island Resort had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.


Five year record for tourist arrivals in January

The President’s Office has reported that 67,478 tourists arrived in the Maldives during January 2010, making it country’s strongest January in five years.

Moosa Zameer, head of planning and statistics at the ministry of tourism, observed it was “the best [January] we have ever had.”

But Sim Mohamed from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) was less optimistic about the numbers, saying they are “a bit misleading” and “must be studied carefully”.

Although the number of arrivals under tourists visas may have risen, Sim said many of these tourists are only ‘surface arrivals’ – such as passengers on a cruise ship who arrive for a day or two, and then leave.

Several such regular services have started bringing tourists from India and Sri Lanka, he noted.

According to Sim, the final arrival figures for tourists could be reduced by 30-40 per cent before they can accurately show the number of tourists who are staying for significant amounts of time – and spending money in the country.

Under normal circumstances, most tourists coming to the Maldives are at “the high end of the market – those who have the disposable income to go wherever they want to go,” he says.

But with the recent economic crisis, many resorts and airlines have reduced their rates significantly, he explained, with some resorts cutting their rates up to 30-50 percent. More airlines opening their routes to the Maldives also means more competitive air fares.

Because resorts are operating at lower rates, “there isn’t a significant rise in financial activity in Malé or even in other islands,” Sim said, but “it’s still a win for the government since they get bed rent.”

Zameer believes that the rise in tourist arrivals is not only accredited to cheaper rates at resorts, but to all the “work in promotions carried out after the [economic] crisis at the end of 2008.” He believes both the private sector and the ministry have put a lot of work into promoting the Maldives as a tourist destination, even for those who are more budget conscious.

Traditionally, the key markets for tourism in Maldives have been the UK, Italy, Germany, France, Russia, China and Switzerland, according to MATI. But this trend has already seen a change this year.

Zameer says there has been a “shift in the market,” as European seasonal tourist numbers are dropping and the Chinese and Indian markets are emerging. Kuwaitis have also helped the market “enormously,” he says.

Zameer believes people are starting to realise this is the right time to travel, and they can “go to the destination they have been waiting to go to.”

Sim agrees “there has been a big rise in tourists coming from India. There is also a very sharp rise in Chinese arrivals after Chinese New Year, and there will be another one towards Easter, mostly Italians.”

He added that MATI is “feeling good vibes” from the market, especially from Germany and the UK.

“We might not see a significant recovery in 2010, but down the line, in 2012, we might see a further rise in the tourism industry.”


New work visa regulations frustrating business

Picture-perfect hotels and superb service are synonymous with Maldives tourism.

However the country’s number one industry has always grappled with a shortage of skilled workers.

To counter this dozens of skilled foreign workers enter the Maldives each year, so the recent change in procedures and requirements for work visas has thrown the industry into disarray.

“What we didn’t need was to re-invent the wheel,” says Ibrahim ‘Sim’ Mohamed, secretary general of the Maldivian Tourism Industry (MATI).

“Every day it becomes more difficult to operate tourism related businesses because of the changes in requirements and procedures for work permits,” Sim said.

The Honorary consul of Italy, Giorgia Marazzi, echoes a similar thought.

“The procedures are long and confusing now, and even 50 year old tourism professionals are obliged to show certificates,” he says.

Problematic Procedures

Regulations surrounding work visas were recently changed. A deposit [to cover the worker’s return airfare] is paid to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, while the Ministry of Human resources issues an employment approval form. This must be translated into a work visa by the Department of Immigration.

“The sudden change, coupled with the fact that requirements are so high and stringent now, makes it difficult to comply with [the regulation] in some cases,” says Sim.

MATI members have complained about the issue in numerous meetings and forums, saying they need full time staff just to complete the paperwork and queue at the relevant ministries.

Among the problems identified is the lack of information sharing between relevant ministries.

Giorgia recounts the case of an Italian businessman who came to town and registered a company related to tourism and diving. He registered the logo and opened a bank account only to be refused a work permit.

“If you are promoting investment you have to enable a person to work legally in the country,” Giorgia said.

“Ministries should cooperate and have a comprehensive network of information and not work against each other.”

According to Mohamed Anees, HR manager of Sunhotels, “even if the deposit was paid at the HR ministry before the change in procedure, when you go to the Department of Immigration with the paper work you might be asked to pay the deposit again.”

An exasperated Sim accuses the different departments of “fighting for territory. Controller of Immigration Ilyas Hussain begs to differ.

‘It’s a misunderstanding on their part to think like that. There is no turf war, and we just give out work visas once the employment approval form is given by the HR ministry, and then people can work here legally.”

He adds the rise in deposit money is also to provide a few days’ accommodation in case a person has to be sent back.

“As immigration controller we need some sort of guarantee, and we need to see certificates to issue work visas. We deal with the money now, while HR deals with administrative issues.”

He says tourism industry should instead worry about paying bed taxes and other money owed to the government on time.

The need to show educational and trade certificates is a particularly contentious issue.

“It has to be attested, but lawyers and consulates attest it without even verifying the origin [of the certificates],” says Giorgia.

Anees agrees that the procedures are difficult and a necessary evil: “We bring foreigners as we can’t find skilled people here, so it makes sense to ask for certificates, and sometimes they reject the papers saying they’re not up to the mark.”

But he finds the amount taken as deposit money too high.

“It should be at maximum the amount of a return ticket to the country of origin, but now they are asking for much more.”

Anees also has problems with the HR ministry’s quota system for hiring foreign employees. At present the HR ministry dictates how many foreign workers a particular company can hire. The ministry also decides which jobs foreign employees can hold and the number of foreigners who can be employed in a particular job category.

“Sometimes we have to change job positions as per requirements, and then we are obliged to go through the whole process of advertising and all that.”

Instead, he reasons, a quota should be given and left up to the resort to fill as required.

Both Giorgia and Anees also feel that scrapping the requirement of a police report is a mistake: “You don’t know what shady people might turn up in the Maldives then.”

Shortage of skilled personnel

At the heart of the matter is a lack of skilled Maldivians.

“It is costly to bring in foreigners, but to train Maldivians takes money and man-hours, so some opt for the faster and easier option,” reasons Sim.

A businessman, who asked not to be named, working in the tourism sector says, he advertised for 20 job positions recently ranging from laborers to manager positions and got only one applicant, who was a foreigner: “in the Maldives there is no unemployment – it’s all voluntary [unemployment].”

According to statistics from the tourism industry, out of the 54 resorts in the study 27 were unable to attain the 50% Maldivian staff requirement. It was interesting to note that its was mostly resorts with foreign management that had the highest number of Maldivian employees.

“It is a colossal failure on the part of past and present governments that they hadn’t addressed this human resource issue,” Sim says.

He points out that Maldives gets more arrivals, there are more resorts opening up and resorts are of a higher standard, “yet the country lacks manpower.”

Societal attitudes also play a role: only white collar jobs are sought after by Maldivians.

“We have failed to imbibe in our youth the notion that work is dignified no matter what you do,” says Sim.

The education system is also not geared towards producing people for the main industries of Maldives, like tourism, fishing and construction, he complains.

The policy of running vocational training parallel to the education system the last 12 years has not paid off, he says, and every now and then parliamentarians whip up the issue to garner publicity and sympathy instead of working towards finding a permanent solution to the problem.

“We expected the new ministers to be more open and liberal minded, and instead things have gotten worse,” Sim says.

Deputy HR minister Hussain Ismail agrees procedures are now more restrictive.

“Before it was as businessmen wanted,” he says, adding enough forewarning was given before the implementation of new procedures.

“The different departments do share information, but of course there are hitches which we are trying to smooth out.”

As for the problem of certificates, Hussain says the ministry is now even accepting trade certificates.

“If a person does not have educational qualifications, he should be able to produce a trade one from wherever he has worked. After all he is being hired for his skills.”

The lack of skilled Maldivians doesn’t wash with him, and he takes as an example the case of a seaplane company.

“The company advertises for pilots, and in addition to the pilot license they also ask for four credit passes in London ‘O’ levels.”

He says despite the fact that there are now lots of Maldivian pilots, they are not hired due to the criteria of having specific number of ‘O’ level passes.

“If companies are willing to train foreigners why not train Maldivians?” he asks.

Hussain says the authorities will not ease work visa requirements just to make it easy for business.

“We have to look into social issues also and take them into consideration,” he argues.

However tightening the work visa procedures without solving the underlying issues might make “the tourism industry grind to a halt very soon,” Sim warns.


Tourists attempting to ride whale sharks in South Ari Atoll

Excessive human interaction with whale sharks in South Ari Atoll could eventually lead to the species leaving the area permanently, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project (MWSRP) has warned.

“We have reports of tourists touching and even attempting to ride the sharks,” said Adam Harman from the MWSRP.

In June last year the southern tip of the Ari Atoll region, a year long whale shark aggregation site, was declared a marine protected area (MPA). But recently there has been a large increase in the number of tourists visiting the area.

“The whale sharks have attracted more and more tourists to the area. Sometimes there are 25 boats and over 100 tourists swimming around one shark,” Harman said.

Interaction guidelines were implemented to protect whale sharks in 2008. According to these guidelines, only 12-13 swimmers from one boat are allowed around a shark at any given time, and even then there is to be no contact with the animals. However these guidelines are difficult to monitor since they are self regulated.

According to MWSRP, once a shark is spotted all the boats in the area converge around the shark, ‘caging’ it in. This endangers the animal in many ways and there is a huge possibility of propeller damage.

“If this keeps up we risk losing the sharks. They will move onto other preferential habitats” warned Harman.

“Currently we are getting three sightings a day. We used to have 39 encounters in the same three day period.

“Its hard to say what could happen, but if things don’t change by this time next year, the number of sharks in this area could go down.”

The threat of losing the whale sharks is very real, Harman emphasised. Similar cases have been recorded in Mexico and South Africa, where whale sharks have been known to leave their habitats.

This is not the first incident in South Ari Atoll where marine life have left to seek other preferential habitats. South Ari Atoll Madivaru, ‘Manta point’, was once a popularsite for manta rays.

“At one time you could spot almost 50. Today however, spotting even one is considered lucky,” Harman said.

Tourists converge on a whale shark in a flurry of flippers
Tourists converge on a whale shark in a flurry of flippers

Violent clashes

The clash of ideas has led to hostile confrontations between operators and researchers. In one incident a knife was allegedly used by safari operators to threaten researchers.

Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ibrahim Naeem, confirmed the government had received reports of such confrontations.

“We have urged the researchers and operators to stay out of each others’ way,” he said. “We do get many complaints about people interfering with whale sharks, but since the law doesn’t say its illegal, people still do it,” he continued.

“Divers and safari operators argue that 12 swimmers per whale is not enough, while scientists say that more than 12 poses a risk to the animals. We are having talks with the people involved in the industry and are in the process of reviewing the guidelines.”

The MWSRP have been working closely with the evironment, fisheries and tourism ministries to find a solution to the problem.

Minister of Tourism Dr Ali Sawad said ” We have been working in coordination with the environment ministry, and we are looking for ways to increase awareness and work more closely with divers associations and safari operators.”

Images provided by MWSRP.


Future of Maldives tourism: exclusive or mid-market?

The Maldives is known for its high end world class resorts. Popular among the rich and famous, it seems the right amount of money can buy you some tropical privacy in the modern hectic world.

This privacy and seclusion of many Maldivian resorts is what makes them unique. This is what differentiates the Maldives from its competitors, and over the last few years many new exclusive resorts have sprung up.

These high end resorts, and the tourism sector as a whole, are an important part of the Maldivian economy: in 2008, the sector contributed 27.2% of the Maldivian GDP.

However several recent surveys suggest a vast majority of people are finding the price of a Maldivian getaway too expensive. Discussions on well-known travel forums such as show that many guests and potential tourists are off put by the high prices.

Feelings on the issue are mixed. Many visitors, especially families, look for a cheaper option, while honeymooners are more willing to pay the extra dollars for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

There is demand from the high end markets for exclusive resorts. Ahmed Solih, permanent secretary for the tourism ministry noted that “expensive is a term dictated by demand & supply”.

Yet according to Solih, the development of a mid-market tourism sector in the Maldives  catering to the huge global middle class has always been on the government’s agenda.

“We lease the land to the developer, but it’s the private sector that makes the decision on who they will cater for,” said Solih.

The many tour operators and resort developers opt to cater for the high end market due to the proven profitable returns.

Solih continued: “In the Maldives, each resort has its own power and water generation, each resort is self sufficient, and for every head staying, there are two staff and they also live on site. This makes resorts a very expensive operation to maintain,” he said.

However the recent regulations allowing guest houses on inhabited islands and the introduction of a national transportation system (the Maldivian Dhoni Services, or MDS) has the potential to open the country to the mid-market tourist sector.

Former Minister of Tourism Abdulla Mausoom said ” it is vital to maintain the exclusive image that we have created for the Maldives, but with careful management, a venture into the mid-market sector is important.”

Both Solih and Mausoom said that it was not just a matter of accommodation, and that the infrastructure had to be in place for this new market.

Currently, guests are whisked off to their destinations on expensive seaplanes or fast boats to their destinations. If the mid-market sector is to gain a foothold in the country, a proper transportation system needs to be in place.

Another potential market for the Maldives is the Indian and Chinese middle class. India currently has the largest middle class in the world consisting of nearly 300 million people, contributing US$380 billion to the consumer market.

With such a large market at such a close proximity, it is surprising that only 2.4 per cent of the country’s tourists arrive from India.

Speaking on this issue, Solih noted that ” it is true that the Indian market has huge potential. According to World Trade Organisation (WTO), one in five tourists are now Indian. The reason that Indians do not come here is because our current packages are not desirable for them.

“Most Indians would come for a couple of days, at the most, and they look for duty free shopping complexes,” Solih claimed.

Indians like many Maldivians, love to go shopping when they are overseas. If we are to cater for these new emerging markets, we must plan on what it is they are looking for.

“The success of the tourism industry in the Maldives has been due to carefully planned expansion,” Mausoom.

The current system is well established, and has reaped benefits for the Maldives. It is now up to the developers and tour operators to decide whether they are willing to cater for the new markets that are out there.


Tourists finding Maldives too pricy

A recent survey conducted by various travel magazines has found 80% of respondents feel that prices in the Maldives are too high.

According to Miadhu, 140 tourists were questioned over seven days as part of the survey. Many claimed they they would rather experience the true beauty of the Maldives and experience local cuisine rather than pay top dollar for imported food and sit in a room with expensive decorations.

While the development of mid-range tourist resorts  has been considered, the influence of the upscale tourism sector remains strong in the country.